Author: Poling, Chuck

Inspiration, Frustration, and Education

There’s a thin line between inspiration and frustration for bluegrass pickers. I’ve been to performances that get me all fired up and eager to get home to pick my mandolin. Then there are times where I sit in stunned disbelief and ask myself, “Why do I even bother?”

I didn’t start playing bluegrass music with any particular goal in mind. I just wanted to play the music I love with and for people who enjoy it as much as I do. Along the way, I hope to incrementally improve because I want to feel like I’m moving forward. It gives one a sense of accomplishment to be able to competently pick out a fiddle tune that a year before seemed impossible. It’s great to always be learning new songs to build up a diverse jam repertoire.

Lately, I’ve been practicing with a metronome to help develop a steadier sense of rhythm. It can be pretty tedious and I usually have to force myself to do it, but it definitely improves my timing. I know I should work on tablature, but it seems so much like homework that I can easily justify doing anything else.

The last time I had a music teacher was 30 years ago, when I was fresh out of college and full of youthful energy and delusions about how easy learning bluegrass fiddle would be. I had acquired a decent old French violin in trade for an electric bass and I found a teacher through the Fifth String when it was on Scott Street in San Francisco (that would be the Triassic period, for those of you taking notes).

Elliot Stewart, who did a stint with the infamous Done Gone Band, was my teacher. He did an excellent job of both inspiring me and terrifying me with the complexity of playing the dang fiddle. I figured my intonation would get better as my left hand got more familiar with the neck, and it did, but bowing was a completely different story. All the myriad variables – like how you hold the bow, how your arm is positioned, whether to pull or push the bow – overwhelmed me.

After six months of due diligence – I practice at least five days a week for an hour or two a day – my fiddling still sounded like the death cry of a wombat. I couldn’t find a violin mute that dulled the pain, so I stuck a banjo mute on the bridge, to the relief of my downstairs neighbors. A friend had lent me a mandolin, and I became convinced that translating my experience as guitar player to mandolin made a whole lot more sense than wrestling with the devilish little squeakbox on which I’d been sawing away.

For many years, I just kind of messed around with the mandolin, playing it like a little guitar. But as I started to make more bluegrass connections and learn more about the music, I consciously made an effort to listen and learn. I didn’t consider taking lessons because I just wanted to see what I could do on my own. I’ve never been a big one for continuing education – I would much rather learn through real world experience than sit in a classroom.

But as I’ve played more and improved – marginally – over the years, I sometimes become frustrated with the glacial pace of progress. Last year, I decided to make a change and attend CBA Summer Music Camp in Grass Valley. I signed up for the intermediate guitar class to help me get some guitar chops back after focusing on mandolin for the last ten or so years.

Camp was fun and I learned a lot. While there are classroom sessions, it was very hands-on, with a minimum of theory. When I learned that Mike Compton would be teaching the level 3 mandolin class this year, I jumped to register. Compton is just about my favorite mandolin player on earth, and he also has a great reputation as a teacher. In anticipation of meeting and learning from him, I’ve been doing some reading up on Mr. Compton.

I found a very extensive interview with him on that provided a lot of insight into technique, influences, and his unique approach to playing mandolin. But what impressed me most was how modest he is about his accomplishments. He considers himself very fortunate to just have been in the right place at the right time to cash in on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” phenomena and has since become the go-to guy for any kind of traditional mandolin on a movie soundtrack.

While generally acknowledged as the premier practitioner of Monroe style, Compton shies away from accolades when compared with the master.

“That’s certainly a flattering comment,” he replied to a question that referred to him as the “torch-bearer” of the Monroe sound. “To think that I would actually be able to continue and represent the Monroe style would be admirable indeed. But I don't know that much about it. Time has proven that to me. The more I dig, the less I know. I can fake it well enough, but it only fools those who haven't sat down and taken a close listen to the style. I don't really play like Bill when I strap on a mandolin. I play at the style, but I can't repeat his work. Nor can anyone else.”

Which brings me back to my original point – inspiration vs. frustration. When someone as talented and well-known as Mike Compton admits that he can “fake it well enough,” it give a rank amateur like me some hope and some perspective. No matter how much I, or Mike Compton – if I may take the liberty of linking my name to his – practice, jam, and perform, we’ll share a desire to improve our technique, learn about new styles, and emulate other players we admire.

I think all us pickers in bluegrass land have to maintain that perspective – there’s always going to be someone who looks up to you and there’s always someone you’ll look up to. On those rare occasions where I play a mandolin break that elicits applause from the crowd, I am equally flattered and embarrassed. God bless ‘em for giving me the compliment, but I’m not sure I really deserve it. I always feel like I sounded better when I was practicing, or, more frequently, that I just should have practiced more.

When I’m in mandolin class at this summer’s music camp, I’m going to try to remember that musical progress is relative – the point is to learn something, apply it on a regular basis, and, most of all, to have fun. I don’t harbor any illusions that I’ll come out of music camp playing like Mike Compton, but I’ll be inspired to work ever harder on my picking, and I can take pride in what I’ve accomplished. It’s just a matter of keeping some perspective.

Posted:  3/28/2011

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